My old flame

December 12, 2010 at 4:30 PM 1 comment

The first time I saw Maecenas Norman,* he was sitting in on a presentation by a Yale professor who had devoted her career to the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. One of my graduate school professors had told us that Maecenas was smart. “Smart,” I have come to see, is the highest compliment you can pay a scholar or scientific researcher. Thanks to the power of understatement, it’s better to be “smart” than “brilliant.”

I figured that if Maecenas was teaching eighteenth-century literature at a university in New York City, he had to be smart. To me, though, he looked like a dumpy leftover from the early ‘seventies. The wire-rimmed eyeglasses, the button-down shirt and faded corduroy pants signaled that Maecenas Norman was one of these big intellects who could explain what happened in London on December 31, 1659 but couldn’t tell you what a carton of milk cost at ShopRite.

I ended up taking Maecenas’ “Politics in Restoration England” class. I still remember sitting to his left on the first day of the course and leaning away from him lest he gesticulate an arm into my nose. I remember too that the class did a close reading of a diary entry by Samuel Pepys, and I discovered that an alternate meaning of “secular” is “occurring or celebrated once in an age or century.” I remember all of this stuff because I had gone from seeing Maecenas Norman as a shlump to thinking he was a wonderful man.  He had the kind of expansive personality I love, and he really was as smart about the English Restoration as he was about shopping at ShopRite.

Hence began a crush that lasted for five years.

I wasn’t alone. Sandy, my closest friend in grad school, felt the same attraction to Maecenas, and apparently, so did the professor who said Maecenas was smart. Sandy said she saw her give Maecenas a more than platonic kiss.

I became so enamored of this man that I dreaded and yearned for my weekly Monday night class. I always came prepared to discuss the texts, but I also deliberated over what clothing to wear. For an oral presentation on Joseph Addison, I wore a black knit shirt with a lime green jacket, black pants and tiny Roman glass earrings. In addition to my talk, I brought along a sheet I created that compared 1660 (Charles II) to 2000 (Bill Clinton). Maecenas commented that the sheet I passed around was delightful and much “under-utilized.” I committed the expression “under-utilized” to memory, and until Maecenas utilized the word, I couldn’t imagine ever utilizing it myself.

You can always count on my delusional self to kick in

A couple of times, I fancied that Maecenas was as smitten by me as I was by him. One time, I thought he said “hello” to me in a low, confidential voice. Another time, when I visited him at his office to discuss a book idea, we had what I took to be a thrilling conversation with an undercurrent of desire.

The truth is that Maecenas never initiated any inappropriate personal conversation with me. In fact, he either blew off or forgot about a couple of my scheduled appointments with him.

“Maybe he’s not so great in real life,” Sandy said. “Maybe he leaves his underwear in the middle of the floor for his wife to pick up.”

Yes, you see, there was a wife. But Sandy and I hoped she would leave him for a woman, or for a man in the Office of Public Affairs at the government agency where she worked. Then Sandy learned that Maecenas had pursued this wife for at least a year, pleading with her to marry him. She thought the wife came from money too. How else could the Normans — one a college professor, the other a City government employee — afford the two-million-dollar Wave Hill-area house they lived in?

“Can’t love trump all of that?” Sandy wondered.

I came down to earth on the day I bought my co-op apartment. I passed Maecenas in front of the neighborhood Chase Bank and flashed him a big happy smile. He did not look nearly so happy to see me. I even had the distinct feeling he wanted to pass me by, but in the obtuse way of people who suffer from an unrequited crush, I buttonholed him anyway. He encouraged me, glumly, to get in touch with him if I wanted to talk about my book idea. When I saw what a hurry he was in to get going, I was cured. Just like that. By the time I rounded the corner to my new apartment, my crush had evaporated in a steam of humiliation.

Tess’ last amble at Stonehenge

Sort of. Until last summer, I was still taking an occasional walk past his house. Now and then, I would check online to see if he was still teaching at the university. And when a good friend of mine moved around the corner from Maecenas, I craned my neck to see if I could catch sight of him.

Even though I have run into my professor in the neighborhood only two times in eleven years, I still keep an eye out for him. Which explains why it was easy for me to spot him recently walking across a Henry Hudson Parkway viaduct, dragging a trolley full of books behind him. He looked so wretched that I wasn’t sure it was him. This fellow’s white hair was unkempt and he had a roll of fat around his middle. For the first time, I understood that my old emotion for Maecenas was powerful but empty. In a second, he had gone back to being the shlumpy professor I saw at the Mary Montagu lecture more than a decade ago. By now, though, I had a feeling that the shlumpiness I observed was more a part of me than him.

I thought, “How lucky for you, Maecenas Norman, that you married a woman who did not leave you for a woman or for a man in her agency office, and who stays with you whether you are adorable or chubby. Because what is caprice compared to a lifelong commitment?”

True, true. But, you know, a crush is one of those navel-gazing viruses that never completely leaves the body. It keeps you fantasizing about “what might have been” if you had met him first. You flatter yourself that he would have preferred you, and that you would have loved him better than his wife does. The crush itself is a sign that, sadly, you were always more interested in your own desires than in the guy as a real human being who, in fact, will get shlumpier, more white-haired and sicker as time goes on.

And yet the virus remains. I expect always to be curious about Maecenas, his family, his scholarly pursuits and his appearance in the neighborhood, as mysterious and iconic to me as Tess of the D’Urberville‘s last amble at Stonehenge.

A literary mind is a terrible thing to waste.

* All names in this post, except for those of public figures, are fictionalized to protect me from looking like a complete idiot.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, Education, Emotions, Love, Memory, New York City, Teaching. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Pesha  |  December 13, 2010 at 9:05 PM

    Hey, it’s not just you. It’s everybody on Facebook too who searches for old flames in the wee lonely hours of the night!


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